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No Answer to Nativism


By Chuck Lane

"GIVE US YOUR TIRED, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

When poet Emma Lazarus wrote those words of welcome for the Statue of Liberty, there was a certain logic to America's open-arms policy towards immigration. The sparsely-populated nation, its industrial economy just beginning to take off, needed the low-wage factory workers and energetic small farmers streaming out of Europe.

But in today's America of stagflation and unemployment, nativist cries to "close the borders" are drowning out Lazarus's message. Illegal immigration from Mexico and massive boatlifts of Cuban, Indo-chinese, and Haitian refugees seems to many to threaten American culture and American jobs.

Such nativism isn't new. The racist Immigration Act of 1924, and the hysterically anti-Communist McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 both embodied the ugliest aspects of some Americans' attitude toward their nation's role as a world refuge. What is new is that, in the midst of the current xenophobia, two legislators are actually trying to provide a balanced, comprehensive and effective law to mitigate nativism by restoring order at America's frontiers.

S. 2222, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, co-authored by Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-Ky.) is probably the most fair-minded immigration bill in American history. It won bipartisan support and the editorial acclaim of most major daily newspapers. The Senate approved the bill in August, setting up a vote in the House of Representatives this fall.

But despite its good intentions, S. 2222 is too weak to achieve its stated purposes. And only days after S. 2222 won Senate passage, the Reagan Administration, in response to Mexico's recent economic crisis, took steps which will probably aggravate the very problems the legislation is designed to solve.

To understand these disastrous ironies, you have to understand what S. 2222 tries to accomplish. Its two most hotly debated provisions are a ceiling on total yearly legal immigration at the current level of 425,000 persons, and an amnesty for some illegal immigrants now living in the United States. Sens. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.) attacked these provisions as too restrictive, while conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) have said that the amnesty provision would encourage more illegal immigration. But the amnesty only applies to persons who entered the country before Jan. 1, 1978. It grants only official residency status--not citizenship--and forbids food stamps and Medicaid to any such persons. Still, even the limited amnesty would relieve undocumented workers' fears of midnight raids by brutal immigration enforcement officers.

At the heart of S. 2222 are three provisions designed to curb illegal immigration of Mexican farm workers. This is what Simpson calls "a three-legged stool." S. 2222 would reinforce the Southern border patrol, punish employers who hire illegal aliens and ease identification of undocumented workers. But these are three wobbly legs.

To strengthen the Immigration and Naturalization Service's border patrol, the bill "expresses the sense of the Senate" that more funds be allocated to the patrol. But it neither authorizes nor appropriates such funds. Beyond that, the bill also calls for a "user's fee" for aliens seeking access to the U.S. border. One wonders how many migrants determined to flee Mexico's desperate poverty would actually be deterred by such an admission charge, or how many would even be aware of its existence.

Based on the premise that undocumented migrant workers "take jobs from Americans," the employers' sanctions in S. 2222 are unlikely to work. Employers in southwestern states use Mexican farm labor systematically. Many of their businesses depend on the seasonal influx from south of the border. It's hard to see how a $2000 fine per illegal worker--levied only after two warnings and a lengthy adjudication process--would influence many growers to end this lucrative practice. In any case, by liberalizing the rules governing the so-called "H-2" seasonal workers program, S. 2222 actually increases some employers' incentive to hire foreigners. This is especially true in the case of Canadian lumberjacks who cross the border to work in Maine's timber industries.

The third leg of Simpson's stool, worker identification, was another highly controversial part of S. 2222. At first, the bill's authors envisioned a national identification card that would be required of any American who wanted a job. Under pressure from civil libertarians however, Simpson and Mazzoli gave up that idea, and the worker ID issue remains unresolved. S. 2222 merely directs the White House to come up with a workable solution within three years. Meanwhile, Chicano organizations worry that the confusion over worker ID will lead some smaller employers to exclude anyone who "looks" Mexican.

In conjunction with other western countries, the United States responded to Mexico's troubles with a patchwork bailout plan consisting of emergency food import credits, advance payments for Mexican crude oil, and $1.85 billion in loans from western central banks. But the real keys to the bailout were two longer-term proposals designed to restore Mexico's ability to pay off its debt in the future: $5 billion in credits from the International Monetary Fund and a $10 billion moratorium on debt repayments to major private banks. Both of these key provisions are contingent upon Mexico's acceptance of a stringent IMF "economic adjustment" program.

That's where the contradiction with S. 2222's goals comes in. If history is any guide, the IMF program in Mexico will include further currency devaluations, wage cuts, and higher prices for basic consumption goods. The result of these policies will be further misery for Mexico's hard-pressed lower classes--but not any increase in Mexican economic independence. Mexicans will simply continue to try to find work in this country. Indeed, immigration officials report that the peso devaluation was followed immediately by record numbers of Mexicans trying to jump the U.S. border.

AMERICA DOES FACE a severe immigration crisis. Haitians languishing in Florida prison camps and Salvadorans going hungry in the Arizona desert convey that message unmistakably. But to meet the crisis, we need a policy that at the very least avoids the kind of blatant contradiction that lawmakers have produced in recent weeks. That policy should be based on the simple observation that immigration to the United States is usually emigration from poverty and oppress on in the less-developed countries. S. 2222 utterly ignores this dimension of the problem. In fact, Simpson believes that migrants do not flee poverty, but rather create it themselves: Unassimilated third world immigrants "may well create in America some of the social, political and economic problems which exist in the countries from which they have chosen to depart."

In other words, as Hart pointed out during the Senate debate, immigration is both a domestic and a foreign policy issue. Washington should undertake cooperative efforts with other governments to curb excessive immigration. For example, even S. 2222 could have included a joint U.S.-Mexican education program to alert Mexicans to the proposed user fees. Beyond this, the U.S. government should support a greater role for developing countries in IMF decisions so that they may join in developing alternatives to the harsh "adjustment" program. The U.S. should also support political changes that are likely to end human rights abuses--like those in El Salvador and Haiti--that cause emigration. And the United States should support third world governments that try to control the employment and investment policies of U.S.-based multinational corporations. Even these initial steps would encounter the criticism that they promise great financial costs and no benefits for Americans. But we must control our own tendency toward nativism during hard economic times and strive for a more balanced immigration policy.

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